Workmans’ Compensation and the Coronavirus

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With the easing of the nationwide lockdown, hundreds of people will be returning to work. Among these, there is a large number that works in retail as well as other work spaces. They will be in contact with thousands of people due to the nature of their work.

While the government has mandated that everyone out in public should be wearing masks, employers must ensure that there are sanitizers and other PPE. The question still remains, how effective are all those measures?

In South Africa, for example, thousands of retail workers have tested positive for coronavirus despite the measures taken. This begs the question, who bears responsibility in the event that these workers contract COVID-19 while at work?

If every business owner is expected to supply personal protective clothing, is the government taking responsibility to ensure that the said PPE is of an adequate standard? Cloth masks for example, are not be very effective. Will workman’s compensation cover the loss of lives that may ensue?

Will employers be forced to come up with new insurance or will it be chalked up as an unfortunate incident at the employee’s personal expense?

The simplest thing to do would be to cover it under workman’s compensation as an industrial illness. However, this is hardly factual given that there is no way to ascertain that an employee did contract the virus while at work.

For a claim to be covered by workman’s compensation, it should have come up in the performance of one’s duties or be an industrial disease (a condition resulting from exposure to occupational hazards in the workplace over a period of time).

A healthcare professional can very well argue that being exposed to diseases is in his line of work. In fact, there is already a presumption that their work exposes them to communicable diseases. Are we going to believe the same from a retail worker?

Even if, which is a very big if, workman’s compensation covers every employee for COVID-19, is that sustainable given the number of deaths that may occur? The answer seems to be a resounding maybe, and maybe is hardly an answer that is satisfactory when dealing with people’s lives.

While no one can argue that easing the lockdown and having people return to work might have been the best thing for the economy, the rights and safety of workers in this pandemic raise more questions than answers. This puts thousands of people in a position where they have to choose between their lives and their livelihoods.

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